Fictionalizing History by Katy

Katherine Longshore 1 Thursday, January 20, 2011
"I’ve always being interested in history and mythology but nevertheless I spent six months reading all the books I could find on the Templars until I was saturated. I could recall most of the key events, characters and dates without references. I then rearranged all the pieces to create the setting that suited me. There are challenges in using real places, real history and real religion, but the rewards are so much greater when all the pieces do fit."  -- Sarwat Chadda

I think I’ve mentioned before that I know more gossip about the Tudor Court than I do about reality TV.  If they put Henry on the cover of People magazine, canoodling with a Court bimbo, I could probably name her without referring to the headline.  “Key events, characters and dates without references.”

I loved that Sarwat Chadda mentioned this in his interview because creating a fictional plot from history seems such a paradox.  It’s history, right?  So where does the plot come in?  Or character?  Or world-building?  It’s all already there.

That is the challenge to which I believe Chadda refers.  There are constraints.  World-building is just as necessary as in a fantasy or science fiction novel, but is dictated by the very real materials left to us today.  Ruins and drawings and diagrams.  Historical accounts and records.  Art and architecture that remain extant.  But those flat descriptions have to be given dimension.  The paintings made flesh.  The modern remains imagined as they once were, brighter, more vibrant, more real.

Characters are described in historical accounts from the skewed perspectives of the journals, diaries and diplomatic memos of the people who wrote them.  Richard III comes to us as a monster, hammered into place by Thomas More and William Shakespeare.  But absolute facts don’t necessarily point him in that direction.  As a writer of historical fiction, it’s my job to look at these subjective accounts and say, “What if they’re wrong?”  I look at the facts, at the bare numbers and place names and dates and actions.  And I wonder, “What if he actually meant to be this way?  Wouldn’t it be fun to create a character true to the facts, but different from the suppositions of historians?”

And then there’s plot.  Because without plot, without that arc in action and character, there is no story, only timeline.  History is linear and episodic.  Fiction can’t be.  So somewhere within the iron structure of fact, I have to find a way to compose a believable and relatable story, with highs and lows and tension and crises.  All of which are dependent on who did what where and when.

And when it works, when the pieces of the puzzle fit together, I find that what Chadda said is absolutely true.  The rewards are great.  I love what I do.


Wonderful post! You summed up the challenges of writing historical fiction so well - not only are we operating within constraints but it's up to us to figure out what the constraints are.

And I agree that the rewards are great when it works - you are bringing the past to life. It's like the Jurassic Park of literature!

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